There was a character created by comedian Martin Short when he was a regular on Saturday Night Live of a deceitful sweating official spokesman who was always being grilled by some unseen investigative reporter. Every sketch had Short’s character stalling, lying and mumbling some kind of inane response to the most pointed questions about some outrageous scandal either he or the company he represented was involved in. Despite every pointed and direct question, Short’s character would equivocate, dodge or it turn on its head. He was bulletproof to the truth.
In between constant puffs on a cigarette and squinting through rimless glasses that shielded always squinting eyes, the character was a tour de force and very funny. What isn’t so funny is when life imitates art, which is what I think I was experiencing when I saw the television news report about a hedge fund manager’s startup pharmaceutical company.
This young gentleman’s company had just purchased the rights to a medication that is used to treat people living with HIV/AIDS. Like the Martin Short character, this young man had a certain deer-in-the-headlights look about him as he faced pointed questions by an off-camera reporter. What made him squirm was the question of why his company raised the price of the drug they now owned went from $13.50 a pill to $750. His reaction could not have been conjured better if he was thought up in the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live. He had a bit of a facial tick and he avoided giving any decent answer to his motives leaving us to deduce, by his silence, that greed might have been a factor.
I first became aware of this cautionary tale of free market capitalism run amok through a Facebook post. I am confident the spate of television news reporters covering the story were spurred on first by the social network buzz that had been created. How media has changed. Now even network television news is using the Internet for its sources.
There are already rumors that the company, no doubt due to the massive amount of televised and Internet-related bad publicity, may be rethinking its economic model. If televising this money grab helps achieve that, then there is still hope the medium can be an instrument for good. And television, at least in this context, did help illustrate Pope Francis’ warning about the pursuit of things (like money) to the exclusion of everything else.
There is another example of somebody connected with the pharmaceutical industry who was also made famous via a new medium … in this case, television in its infancy. The polio vaccine’s development by Dr. Jonas Salk coincided with the advent of television in the middle part of the last century. Just as television today damages the reputation of vaccines via unsupported celebrity “experts” who rail against all vaccines, in 1954 America, people were even more confused about whether the seemingly counterintuitive concept of “giving” someone a small dose of an engineered diluted disease (in this case the polio virus), wasn’t too dangerous.
Then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower used television to assure the American public that the government was doing all it could to insure the new vaccine would be safe and effective. It is also helpful to recall that polio had been a scourge for a very long time, claiming some famous victims like President Franklin D. Roosevelt. There were scary images of boys and girls and men and women in 1950s sci-fi looking contraptions known as iron lungs, and it was not uncommon to see children with braces on their legs.
Jonas Salk looked the part of the kind and gentle doctor who always put his patients first. Very different from our modern version of the pharmaceutical world in the visage of the jittery hedge fund manager. Salk, like the hedge fund manager, was on television a lot, and in time, became a kind of celebrity from the exposure. That’s where the similarity ends.
Dr. Salk did something almost as heroic as coming up with a working vaccine against polio when it came time to monetize the process. It is expensive to create drugs and it is not a violation of Catholic doctrine for a doctor to profit from his expertise. Jonas Salk’s efforts would touch the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, and no one would have begrudged him making a payday of it. But Dr. Salk did something that even back then was considered odd and by today’s standards — where hedge fund managers charge $750 for a pill that was perfectly profitable at $13.50 — almost miraculous. He declined to patent his vaccine.
According to Forbes magazine, Dr. Salk would have earned $7 billion for his creation. Instead, he chose to help make the drug more accessible to more people. His lack of patent decreased the cost of production of the polio vaccine by 25%.
When he was interviewed by legendary CBS television reporter Edward R. Murrow about why he declined to patent his medicine, Dr. Salk, whose eyes didn’t dart around nervously and who didn’t fidget in his chair, simply responded, “Could you patent the sun?” As hedge fund managers and other types who give capitalism a bad name try to figure out how to put a meter on the wind, we can look back and thank God for men like Dr. Salk.